On the floor by the bed at the moment is Dissolution by C J Sansom. This is a whodunnit set in the reign of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the monasteries. Normally I hate historical novels but my mother lent me this and I’ve nothing else to read so I’ve persevered with it by dint of pretending that it’s science fiction, in that the cold, dirt and general primitiveness remind me of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series which I read twenty or so years ago and loved. (Phew, that was a long sentence.) And in fact it’s not too bad at all now I’ve got into it.
I enjoy crime novels so long as there’s humanity to offset the nastiness. For that reason I’m a big fan of Val McDermid, in particular the series about the police detective Carol Jordan and the psychologist Tony Hill as I find their relationship so poignant. (Do not be put off by the fact that the television series ‘Wire in the Blood’ is based on these books. There is little resemblance.)
I also like a series no one else seems to have heard about by Jill Paton Walsh set in an Oxford college and featuring a nurse/amateur detective called Isobel Quy (pronounced ‘kie’ to rhyme with ‘why’). The novels are so beautifully crafted you hardly notice you are reading them. You may have heard of the author as a children’s writer.
I tend to favour books by female writers because I find them less dry and factual but, having said that, I was gripped like everybody else by the Stieg Larsson ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ series in spite of the weighty subject matter (such as political journalism, closet Nazis, lengthy court battles). It is shot through with moral fervour, has a wonderful heroine and gives the impression that the author really knows what he’s writing about.
Unfortunately The Snowman by Joe Nesbo, touted on the front cover as ‘the next Stieg Larsson’, fails both of my criteria. I found it both dry and thoroughly unpleasant. I know a lot of people have enjoyed it however, so don’t let my opinion put you off (as if it would).
While I’m on the subject of crime novels, I have to mention the glorious Donna Leon, who I think is American but lives in Italy and writes about a Venetian detective. She doesn’t shirk darkness – delving into organized crime, the dumping of toxic waste, people trafficking and political corruption to name but a few of her subjects – but this is counterbalanced by her detailed descriptions of food and drink (and of course Venice). What English policeman (fictional or otherwise) would start his day at a civilized hour with an espresso or two in a café, move on with a subordinate to a restaurant for lunch – a salad, some pasta, a bit of fish, a bottle of wine – and then arrive home in time for a delicious dinner cooked by his (superwoman) wife? Ravishing. As is her writing style: sparse, incisive and funny – the exchanges between Brunetti (the detective) and his appalling boss are masterpieces.